JANESVILLE, WI — Down beat, up beat.
After a weekend off, the Jets face a 12-day, five-game road swing more than 4,500 miles from the comforts of home. It’s the first of two Alaska visits this season, the other beginning just five weeks after this one will end.
A grueling road trip for a very young team so early in the season is an enormous challenge. But ever on-brand to their characteristic optimism, the Jets’ coaching staff sees opportunity in adversity.
“These Alaska trips provide a great opportunity for our players to grow and bond as a team,” said head coach Corey Leivermann. “The main focus on road trips is to play simple and play to our strengths. Both Alaska teams have great support from their communities, and we really need to soak in those atmospheres and play Jets hockey.”
Assistant coach Lennie Childs agreed, and seems more eager to witness the team’s growth process than its results.
“For these long trips, you have to take it day by day,” Childs said. “We still have practices, so we’re focused on development through the week. It’s great for team bonding since there is less to do [than at home], and you’re always with each other. I think we’ll fare well on this trip. We’re not so focused on the scoreboard, but rather reaching our own bar as a team. If we can show progress in our development with our habits and our identity, that’s a win for me.”
The Jets departed early Wednesday morning for O’Hare airport, and have a full three-game series with the Kenai River Brown Bears ahead of them in Soldotna. Just four days (and 500 miles due north) later, the team will play a pair against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs.
These Alaska trips, where travel time is measured in days, and miles are counted by the thousands, gives Jets rookies a life experience they might not otherwise have had. How many residents of the “lower 48” can say they’ve made the trek to the Last Frontier?
“A lot of the rookies are giddy and really taking in their first Alaska trip,” said Childs. “That just adds to the positive energy.”
Leivermann again noted the maturation opportunity for rookies still getting used to the grind of junior hockey.
“Veterans know the routine when we go to Alaska, which is nice,” he said. “But the young players will need to adjust quickly. Overall it’s a grind of a twelve-day trip, not being able to stay in your own bed, or get home-cooked meals…but this trip provides the younger players the learning curve of playing on the road and playing in really tough environments.”
Positive thinking is certainly critical for this young, developing roster. With nine ’02s and seven ’01s, more than half the team is aged 18 or under. There are 12 players this year who skated their first career junior hockey game in North America as a Jet. There’s plenty of raw talent even in the youngest of this group — seven of the team’s nine Division I commitments are ’01s or ’02s — meaning a dangerously powerful team could be the result of this early ripening process.